The Big Woods


A hundred years ago, what had once been the New England big woods were no longer big. We had chopped them, skidded them, and floated them down the river to market. The virgin forest was gone, replaced with clear cuts and farmland. With the decline of farming in recent decades, we have noted the return not only of the woods but of the animal life that depends on them - black bears again in the Berkshires, coyotes across all six New England states, and moose as close to the urban center as Natick. The woods are in resurgence. And our use of them has changed.

What by naturalists' definition is old growth forest - land that has had a century and a half or so to re-grow - covers only 2,000 acres, or less than a tenth of one percent, of Massachusetts' forest, in patches. We may not again know what it was to be in the great Eastern forest that stretched to the limits of our vision. The hundred-and-fifty-foot-high hemlock or white pine is rare today but to the Pequots and Mohicans was common. We stand dwarfed in half-century-old white pines in what we like to think are the big woods when in reality we are walking among juveniles.

Timber land achieves monetary value through its two parts, timber and land. In earlier years, the bulk of the value was in the trees. Timber prices for both sawlogs and pulpwood have remained relatively stable in the Northeast in recent times. Land with mature, mixed growth in Maine acquired for $400 per acre, logged, and re-sold after harvest at $90 per acre implies a value of about $300 per acre in the standing timber. A New Hampshire adage is that, if you want to know what's on the market, go look for what's just been logged. A new phenomenon is the tract that sells once, is clear cut, and is sold again at a price that exceeds the original price, as a result of the vistas that make the land more attractive to vacation lot buyers. The former balance between land and timber values in such cases has been reversed.

Through the middle of the century, the method of transport for timber was rivers. Stone piers in decay still line the north country's big waterways. With the elimination of the rivers for transport, trucking by way of log roads has become prevalent. With log roads, land that was formerly accessible only on foot can now be reached by four wheel drive, making possible the conversion of land that formerly doubled as open space to vacation sites. $50,000 may be little more than a down payment on a house in the urban ring. But it will buy debt free as much as five hundred acres of freshly harvested Maine land as the site of a vacation home. Given the better accessibility of the north country as compared to decades ago, it is little wonder that break-up of the great paper company holdings for subdivision looms.

The woods are a farm with plants that are large and a growing season measured in decades. What a conservationist sees as habitat a logger sees as dollars on the stump. Both functions - timber production and open space - have coexisted in a rough balance. Development adds something new. With suburban-style land use on the horizon, we come to realize that the woods are in fact a commodity, to be bought and sold. It's been that way for years. Not since the Indians have they truly been in the public domain.

-Eric T. Reenstierna, MAI


The Reenstierna Associates Report is published as a service to the clients of Eric Reenstierna Associates and other real estate professionals. The views expressed are those of the articles' authors and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the organization. Copyright 1996. All rights reserved.

Eric Reenstierna Associates
24 Thorndike Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141
(617) 577-0096

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